Prisons Aren't Our Only Prisons


Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Bernard Harcourt explains at length why certain conclusions about the larger societal effects of imprisoning people aren't as robust as they should be, since they don't count those in mental institutions in their figurings about the rises and falls in incarcerated Americans.

It's very detailed and worth reading (and link-hopping) in its entirety to understand the full implications of what he's on to here, but here's the heart of it. Criminologists have generally

used the imprisonment rate to measure society's level of incapacitation. But the prison rate alone may not capture what we were trying to measure. The most straightforward interpretation of my findings is that neither the rate of imprisonment alone, nor the rate of mental hospitalization alone are good predictors of serious violent crime over the period 1934-2001. In contrast, the aggregated institutionalization rate (aggregating the mental hospitalization and prison rates) is a strong predictor of homicides. This suggests that there is something going on in the relationship between mental hospitalization and prison — perhaps a form of substitution — that should make us rethink entirely how we measure social control and incapacitation.

But since practically none of our studies on prisons, guns, abortion, education, unemployment, capital punishment, etc., controls for institutionalization writ large, most of what we claim to know about these effects may be on shaky ground.

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  1. Aren’t the insane supposed to remain uncounted until they shoot up a Temple, Post Office or school?

  2. Duh!

  3. ?????The lunatic is in my head????

  4. This is one of these things which is obvious once someone points it out.

  5. The data on the respective rates of imprisonment and instiutionalization in the US over the past few decades is definitely striking, but the idea that they are explained by some kind of substitution seems pretty implausible. Isn’t a large chunk of the increase in incarceration over last half century explained by dramatically increasing imprisonment of people for drug-related crimes? And I bet the decrease in institutionalization can be explained at least in part by the huge improvement in psychiatric drug treatment in recent years. It seems like what we’re seeing is just a coincedence of medecine getting better and criminal law getting worse.

  6. brotherben, I’m flying to Atlanta to hear that on the 22nd. I think it would be worth the two or three hours drive from east LA to see it.

  7. Mr. Ard,
    As tasty as that sounds, I have much better things to do. My ma-in-law is flying in that day from Oregon for my son’s graduation…

    Yeeeeeehawwwwwww ???

  8. brotherben


  9. Eh, Harcourt seems to be barking up the wrong tree. See here for some cold water on the transinstitutionalization theory. When you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the high level “substituion” effect is a product of historical coincidences. Harcourt does point out that the demographics wouldn’t make sense for a direct looney bin -> big house transfer, but absent it or a simlar hypothesis it he doesn’t really have any reason to combine the two populations in analysis.

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